‘Someone will eventually die waiting on hold for Austin 911’: Pressure increases operator staffing

AUSTIN (KXAN) — More viewers are turning to KXAN because emergency calls are going unanswered for too long.

The Austin Police Department is still severely understaffed with 911 operators and dispatchers.

On Monday, they told KXAN they cut 23 dispatchers out of 75 assigned personnel and 49,911 operators out of 105 positions.

More and more people are telling KXAN they are being held up during emergencies and are demanding change.

Three months since she became a new mother, Marianne Nitsch found herself one of the people who experienced this – at a life-threatening moment.

Alone at home with her newborn, she accidentally ate something she was allergic to.

“I started having trouble breathing and the back of my throat was closing up,” she recalled. “When something like that happens, I know I’m starting to get a really serious … system-wide reaction.”

With her baby in her arms, she quickly placed him in a safe place.

“So if something happened to me, he wouldn’t be in danger,” Nitsch said.

She then injected herself with an epi-pen and called 911. She said she was greeted by an automated message telling her to stay on hold.

“I was sitting on hold for at least a few minutes, maybe up to maybe five,” Nitsch said. “I was worried … I was going to pass out or lose consciousness before I had a chance to tell someone what was going on and tell them I needed help.”

“I was worried … I was going to pass out or lose consciousness before I had a chance to tell someone what was going on and tell them I needed help.”

Marianne Nitsch, experienced 911 hold

Austin police told KXAN that when there is no operator available to take a call, it remains in a queue and is immediately transferred to the next available caller. We were not told on average how long this might be.

Nitsch said that after an operator contacted her, they sent EMS right away and she was treated immediately.

But she wants to share her experience to put pressure on leaders to make a change.

“I’m just hoping to bring attention to the problem and that the city council and city managers will make sure to give this problem the attention and priority it needs… The first responders that helped me were great, but they need help from the city, to be able to help people who are in a life-or-death situation,” Nich said.

Deborah Lozano wanted to use her nearly 20 years of experience in customer service centers to help answer the call of more 911 operators.

“When I saw the KXAN stories … I was like, they really need help. And I’m looking for a job. So why not? Yes, let’s see if I can be part of the solution here,” she said.

But she said Application process it was “huge”, “long” and “intimidating”.

The job posting indicates that the applicant must obtain two state certifications within six months and one year of employment. It also requires a skill assessment test, an interview panel and a psychological assessment and interview.

“I feel that at this point when we need callers, there should be a simpler process; maybe we’ll hire people temporarily, for a while,” Lozano said.

She thinks APD needs to revise the requirements for 911 operators during this staffing shortage, just as they did to get more APD cadets by recently changing the requirements for physicals, marijuana use and debt.

“I see, you know, there are rules and…regulations and all that stuff. But I just think there’s a way to incorporate that without jumping on someone all at once,” she said.

KXAN asked APD if they are considering changing the application requirements to be 911 call takers or dispatchers. They haven’t responded yet.

City Hall said they share concerns about 911 wait times and are requesting an APD briefing with more data.

APD’s movements so far

The police department is trying to deal with the 911 staffing problem in several ways.

Last month, a pay increase went into effect for both 911 call takers and dispatchers by about two to three dollars for an entry-level position.

APD also began allowing sworn officers to take 911 calls on their days off for overtime pay.

APD said it’s an “unconventional solution” to the call center vacancy problem.

A spokesperson for the department told KXAN this is a temporary solution and not a preferred method of filling these vacancies.

Finally, in August, APD reduced the minimum number of 911 responders required per shift.

They told us this was so they could ease the mandatory overtime workers were putting in and reduce the risk of even more workers leaving.

“It was a very difficult decision because obviously there are consequences,” Lt. Ken Murphy, who leads APD’s Emergency Communications Division, told KXAN at the time. “People who call 911 will not get the immediate response they deserve. This is not the service we want to provide, this is not the service our operators want to provide. However, we need to retain our staff again.”

According to a city memo from last month, APD must report to the city council at the end of the year on the impact of all their efforts and their progress in recruiting and reducing the vacancy rate.

That briefing, the memo states, will include information on the number of people applying for operator and dispatcher jobs, “numbers hired, vacancy rates, the impact of salary increases and stipends, compression issues and any other challenges, which have been considered’.

You can find the 911 operator or dispatcher application here. Just type “call pick up” or “operator” in the keyword field.

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